Tag Archives: Cynthia Bourgeault

Frames

The spiritual life can be a difficult thing to live with. Once one realises for oneself the emptiness of the “universe of concrete things in eternal categories” (Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned), of Newtonian mechanics and dualistically interpreted perceptions, the question of how to live arises in ways that are not only personally unsettling but potentially disruptive to the society in which most of us have grown up.

The Abrahamic religions in their popular, one might say political, forms provided a solid dualistic foundation for life and society – “God’s in his heaven–all’s right with the world” as Robert Browning had it – just as classical mechanics formed a solid, readily calculable foundation not only for physics but for all the sciences. As the revolution in mathematical physics initiated by Einstein and others, and the revolution in biology and paleontology initiated by Darwin, shook the scientific community, so the invasion of Eastern thought and practice (and the revival of the non-dualism inherent in the Christian contemplative tradition), together with the developing psychological disciplines, shook many of the foundations of Western self-understanding.

For those of us who grew up in the turmoil of the 60s the problem could easily become acute. Were we to cling to the imagined certainties of the past, or cast ourselves adrift on the foam of the psychedelic ocean? Were we to seek for no less imaginary certainties among the outward forms of Eastern religions, or were we to become Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerin, tracing our own paths on the leaf-litter of philosophy and metaphysics?

It is easy, at times fatally easy, to fall into New Age formlessness on the one hand, or into some kind of fundamentalism on the other. Perhaps some of the cults and cult-like groups that have formed over the years have been failed attempts to blend these two incompatible directions.

I don’t wish to seem to condemn any of my fellow seekers after truth and insight. Once the medieval conception of a state-sponsored compulsory religion – such as still holds sway in some Muslim societies – has fallen away, choice becomes inevitable. (Even atheism and agnosticism are in this sense choices, albeit nominally negative ones.) The spiritual life needs teachers, though, and teachers often imply institutions, if only to validate their teachings. Many teachers of the spiritual life whom I most admire have remained within, or thrown in their lot with, traditional religions, from Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault in the Christian tradition, to Pema Chödrön and Brad Warner in the Buddhist. But there have been others who have not, whether like Jiddu Krishnamurti they rejected an institutional role, or like Sam Harris never adopted one outside of the academic community.

For myself, I feel that while I will always be grateful to the institutional teachers I have encountered over the years – in my case mostly within the Christian contemplative tradition – I have been happiest and most settled in myself outside religious institutions altogether. I wrote recently:

As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.

Despite the value of frameworks of doctrine as a protection from delusion and indiscipline, I am profoundly indebted to those who have sought to delineate the spiritual path outside those traditional frameworks, whether like Tara Brach or Stephen Batchelor they still call themselves Buddhists, or whether like Harris today or Alan Watts in the 60s, they reject such definitions. As I grow older, paradoxically perhaps, I feel less dependent on them myself.

Lost in hope

Hope, in the conventional sense, is, as we have seen in the last couple of posts here, generally tied to a sense of outcome. We hope something will turn out all right; we hope something else will not happen. Cynthia Bourgeault points out that what she terms mystical hope is not tied in this way. It has a life of its own, “without reference to external circumstances and conditions.”

I have noticed myself that, at least after some years of steady contemplative practice, the experience of what we think of as “loss” – serious accident, illness, bereavement, loss of livelihood, money, or status, for instance – is not accompanied by a loss of hope at the deepest level. Of course, hope in a good outcome is lost – the worst has happened, something is irretrievably broken – but underneath it all there is what feels for all the world like some kind of certainty. Beneath the quicksand is a solid ground, the bedrock of what is. As the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk saw (Habakkuk 3.17-19) though all else fails, at the end there is something more like presence than anything else.

In a long article in Tricycle Magazine, Kurt Spellmeyer reminds us that the Buddha’s illumination came only after the most profound experience of helplessness, when he was so starved and dehydrated that had a passing village girl not brought him rice and milk, he might very well not have lived the night. This, like Habakkuk’s prophecy, may or may not be historical, but it contains as profound a truth: only at the very end of conventional hope, even in our own survival, can we find that which is beyond any result or outcome, beyond any thing whatever.

This brings us, of course, to the thought of our own death. Here is the ultimate helplessness: at the end we shall be bereft of everything, even of the ability to draw the next breath. There will be no more chances, nothing to decide. Richmond Lewis, in a coma from which he was not expected to recover, had a vision of his own death very similar to experiences I have had of being close to physical death, which he memorably described as “dissolv[ing] into light”.

What could this mean? Is it a comforting(?) illusion? An artifact of failing neural circuitry? It isn’t possible, of course, to answer such a question in a way that would satisfy a scientific researcher. We are describing an experience, a “something that it is like to be”, in Thomas Nagel’s words. It does not admit of experimental verification, or if it did, the experimental subject would be in no position to report on the outcome of the experiment! But as an experience, it is as definite and actual as any: far more so than almost any other. But an experience of what?

The nearest expression of it that I can find is that it is an experience of absolute unknowing, of pure isness.

Tara Brach writes, of “the open, wakeful emptiness of awareness”:

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

It seems to me that that “vast and shining presence” is not only the light into which we dissolve, but the ground of our being itself – and our death merely the letting go into what is seen. I hope so.

Hope against hope

I had been intending to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Hopeless?, when it occurred to me that I had written just such a post five years ago, on my old blog, covering the same subject, using some of the same sources, almost exactly, if you will make allowance for rather more overtly Christian language that I would probably use today. It is worth remembering, in this context, how closely parallel the Jesus Prayer and the Nembutsu are, as I suggested yesterday. Here it is:

——

In her luminous little book Mystical HopeCynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: “I hope I get the job.” “I hope they have a good time on holiday.” “I hope Jill finds her cat.” “I hope the biopsy is clear…” If we are dependent on “regular hope”, she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope “that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the ‘upbeat’ kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.” She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Habakkuk 3.17-19

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more “hopeless” the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya… But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal – out of time. “For some reason or another,” she says, “the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days… and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself.”

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the “last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates” (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination – they are pure grace – nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God’s hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the “white martyrdom” of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, “hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice… consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray” (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


——

I wrote the above text at a time when I was beginning to be seriously ill with a heart problem, and it seemed to me to be as clear an answer to my own questions as I could find. I would still stand by it today. Hope lies in the emptying of self, the abandonment of “regular hope” in the “objectless awareness” (Bourgeault) of contemplation. Perhaps Pema Chödrön (see her passage quoted in Hopeless?) has a point after all.